Curious Paradox of Tree Plantation Drives

To make our tree-planting contributions count, extensive planning & resilient strategizing is essential.

The article was originally published on WeNaturalists, as a part of the curated section by the editorial team. For similar stories, head to our Explore section.

Does your knee-jerk reaction to ‘doing your bit’ for the environment involve planting trees? If the answer is yes then you’re not alone. Fundamentally national governments, conservation organizations, businesses and individuals are indulging in similar plantation activities. All said and done, what we need to consider is that, are we really helping the next generation by simply planting trees everywhere?

Let us ponder on the diverse initiatives that have been undertaken and what inference can be drawn from them.

STUMP’ed by the Planting Dilemma

As the nations around the world have become increasingly concerned about delimiting the global temperature rise, planting trees has received an immense impetus. Starting from World Economic Forum (WEF) and USA’s collaborative Trillion Trees Campaign (to “grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees around the world over 10 years by 2030”). And IUCN and the Federal Germany Ministry for the Environment’s Bonn Challenge to bring 350 million hectares of land under reforestation by 2030, the world has always considered tree planting to be the quick fix to the raging climate crisis.

However, is planting trees enough to tackle climate change? Well, theoretically speaking, tree planting is a win-win for nature. Not only do the governments and communities benefit, but the Earth as a whole breathes a sigh of relief. As per the UNEP Emissions Gap 2018 report, reforesting 800 million hectares could lead to “300 billion tonnes of carbon absorption over 25 years.” The proposition looks like a harbinger of hope, but is it possible to achieve the same?

Tree planting in a haphazard manner brings forth unanticipated consequences for the environment. WEF claims that in order to make our tree-planting contributions count constructively, extensive planning and resilient strategizing are the prerequisites.

The estimate by UNEP will bear fruits only when such a reforestation process reaches completion. This means that, only when a forest matures (which takes around a decade’s time), will efficient carbon sequestration take place. This brings us to the million-dollar question — does every tree planting initiative take this into consideration? Do they nurture the sapling and essentially adopt it?

Photo by WeNaturalists

A reality check provided by Yale University on world agroforestry shows that most trees often do not survive past the sapling planting stage. The reasons could be manifold: the livestock feeding on it, the intention of countries to “harvest now and replant later” (vicious cycle of planting and replanting), natural calamities, etc.

Haphazard tree plantation drives take a toll on the economy as well.

A Mongabay report shows that in Himachal Pradesh, India, the government spent 48 percent of their tree-planting budget ($2.7 million), on “non-forest unproductive areas.”

What does it mean? Deserts and mountains would act as natural barriers to growth in the locations where the trees were planted. In addition, another 33 percent of the tree plantation budget ($1.86 million) was dedicated to growing trees in dry areas, where a dearth of natural resources will halt tree growth.

A similar story emerges in UK’s Northumbria. With the expenditure of £200 per hectare per year to maintain trees, “predominantly non-native plantations” are being planted in “marginal” — cheap — farmland, including places that are wildlife-rich. Not only are the trees failing to survive after a certain period due to foreign conditions of soil and water but also changing the natural habitats of most fauna. Thereby disrupting the ecosystem as well as wasting the budget.

We Need The Right Trees in the Right Places

Does this mean that tree planting or reforestation is unhelpful? No, it only implies that the specific tree planting procedures were faulty, the right trees for the right terrain weren’t chosen. Or enough care wasn’t taken to nurture the saplings, which led to such circumstances.

Do we know what is the appropriate way to plant trees then?

Michael Waiyaki’s vision of greening Kenya’s future is a great example in tree plantation and building a sustainable generation. The CEO of Miti Alliance started a flagship program, where they work with schools to set up tree nurseries, empower the children to plant trees by themselves and nurture them and provide feedback every two weeks. In this manner, they are inculcating the values of a Green Childhood and creating conservationists of the future.

Similarly, in India, Mayank Gandhi’s Global Parli movement plants 70 lakh fruit trees annually with the goal of increasing the annual income of farmers to Rs. 1 lakh per acre. His model of tree planting has reduced dependence on rain-fed agriculture and incorporated mass plantation by changing cropping patterns to horticulture using training, knowledge and technology.

These two examples send an optimistic message that if tree-planting is done in the right manner, with proper after-care facilities, it reaps immense benefits.

In fact, it’s all we truly need to overcome the nature crisis. We merely need to pay attention to the methods of planting trees and ensure it contributes to reducing our carbon footprint.

Rachel Carson, in her book, Silent Spring, quotes, “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”

And that’s the real challenge we must overcome in our bid to serve and protect nature.

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